From The Archives: Inside Triathlon’s Profile Of Simon Whitfield
In this feature, originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine Canadian Olympic gold medalist Simon Whitfield and his peers talk about his career and what you can learn from the two-plus decades he was in the sport.
Simon Whitfield is triathlon’s greatest Olympian. He became the sport’s first male gold medalist in Sydney when, despite crashing on the bike, he worked his way back up to the leaders and then outran everyone in the field, outsprinting Germany’s Stefan Vuckovic in the final meters of the race. The victory stunned the pundits, with no one expecting the unknown Canadian to even be a factor.
But being the sport’s first Olympic gold medalist isn’t what makes Whitfield an icon. He earned his iconic status when he collected his second Olympic medal, a silver, in Beijing. In the eight years between Sydney and Beijing, Whitfield reinvented himself as an all-around triathlete, largely because he knew the game was changing and he could no longer fake his way through the swim and bike. In one of the highlights of his career, he led his peers out of the water at the ITU World Championships in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2008.
“I would absolutely decimate the kid I was when I was 24,” Whitfield said recently, while preparing for his fourth Olympics with the Canadian national team at a training camp in Maui.
Triathlon has been a part of Whitfield’s identity for longer than it hasn’t, with him having started the sport when he was only 11. But watch Whitfield in action, and it becomes obvious that he realizes how lucky he is to do what he does for a living—after an open-water session in Maui, he and his teammates splashed through the waves like kids, videotaping themselves as they bodysurfed. And Whitfield made it a point to spice things up for Inside Triathlon’s photographer, stopping mid-run for an unplanned portrait and throwing a coconut for the cameras.
Below, Whitfield and the people he credits with helping him along the way—his coaches, teammates, friends, and mentors—reminisce about the 11 years since Sydney, what it took training-wise to get him to the top and what the name “Whitfield” will mean to the sport once he finally decides to hang up his racing shoes.
On Whitfield’s early years in Australia, where he attended a high school boarding school.
Whitfield: I met Greg Bennett at a race in Australia, and I’ve looked up to him ever since. … I was very, very lucky to have Benno. And frankly I had Crowie and Macca, too. They were a couple of years older than I was, and I spent time around them when I was in a club [team] at age 21.
Greg “Benno” Bennett (An Olympian for Australia in 2004 and Whitfield’s de-facto brother while he lived in the country): I first met Simon back in 1993 at an event just north of Sydney. He had taken the train, I think, to this event and needed a lift home. I thought it was unusual that a 16- or 17-year-old kid was in Sydney on his own. I took him under my wing, I guess, for a few years as he finished high school. He was mad about triathlon. His energy for the sport was great to be around, although it was sometimes exhausting. His running ability as a teenager was something I had never witnessed before, but he couldn’t swim to save his life. He was lucky to break 1:30 for 100 meters. I still think the highlight of his career to this day is when he won the swim prime at the Kitzbühel World Cup a few years ago—talk about hard work and perseverance!
Craig “Crowie” Alexander (a two-time Ironman world champion): Simon and I met around 1994. We had both just started in the sport. He was a very accomplished schoolboy runner and I remember the first time we met, he told me his goal at the time was to run a sub-4-minute mile on the track. We trained together for a couple of seasons and traveled to races together. He was an awesome training partner.
Bennett: Those years as a high schooler at boarding school in Sydney, he was alone. I had a car and Simon didn’t, so naturally I would pick him up for swim squad at 4:45 three to four mornings a week. He was never on time, and I would sit on the horn until I woke up most of the street. Finally his head would pop out of the round window from his loft bedroom. “Sorry!” he would say. He’d then sleep in the car until swimming.
The Sydney Olympics
On winning gold
Bennett (who trained with Whitfield in Victoria, British Columbia, in the lead-up to Sydney): I went to Sydney as a reserve for the Australian Olympic team. We were both incredibly fit and fast. I was confident Simon would mix it up. When they hit the 5K mark on the run I had a tear in my eye already. I truly believed he would do it. With 800 meters to go there was no one in the world who could match his speed to the finish. Although I didn’t get to race, it was incredibly rewarding being a part of history with Simon. After the ceremony he came over to me with the gold medal and put it around my neck and said, “This is yours!” That was pretty cool.
Whitfield: I have a scroll at home that says “Olympic champion” on it. … I raced clean my whole career, and I have a medal at home that’s a gold medal, and that’s the biggest joy of sport.
The Beijing Olympics
On the controversy surrounding Canada’s decision to name Colin Jenkins to the Canadian Olympic team for Beijing to serve as a domestique for Whitfield.
Whitfield: When I started in Sydney we had zero budget for high performance, and we got zero funding, and now we have $1.3 million, and it’s based on medals. That’s just the way it is. So if we could do it again with domestiques, we would do it again, unapologetically. In Beijing, you know, our favorite expression was that people love to—they’d wave the anarchy flag with the left hand and they’d cash checks with the right hand. They would say, “No! Stick it to the man!” And then they would just be like, “Thank you! Money, money, money.”
Colin Jenkins: Going into the Olympics I was the fifth-ranked Canadian and there were obviously only three spots. There was a bit of a controversy. But we knew that we had a game plan, and we laid it out on the table. It caused controversy. Some people were really against it. It especially got a lot of negative press. It really put a lot of pressure on Simon. It also put pressure on the team, if I didn’t do well or if it didn’t work out. Just imagine if Simon [had been] a little off on his run [that day]. And there were people who were so negative, who were blatantly writing in the newspaper all these stupid quotes about him having a big head and “Colin doesn’t deserve to go to the Olympics” and “Simon’s running Triathlon Canada.”
On the special group dynamic of the squad that Whitfield trained with in Victoria leading up to Beijing. The squad included Whitfield, Jenkins, fellow Canadian athletes Dan Wells and Kyle Jones, and American Ironman athlete Jordan Rapp.
Whitfield: I had a ton of pressure in Beijing. That was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. … We had that great squad. I felt real pressure, in a positive way, from our squad because we had a really special group of people.
Jenkins: We all worked so well together. It was a group of us out there. If he didn’t win a medal or he didn’t do well, we never felt like he would be letting us down. But we were all working together for that one goal of him trying to get a medal.
Joel Filliol (Whitfield’s coach from 2004, after the Athens Olympics, until 2008, through Beijing): There’s often talk about the team tactics of things. I don’t think that was enough. How we raced on the day may or may not have impacted the race. How much did it help to win? I couldn’t say. But I can say that all of that time training together, and the work done together—sharing that common goal—was essential to supporting Simon. Beijing was a pretty special performance. There were a number of challenges he overcame. He had his first daughter the year before, which impacted the training he was able to do. And it wasn’t an easy day, either. … It wasn’t the kind of day where it looked like it was easy. There were a number of times when he dropped back [from the leaders] and he pulled himself back on.
Jordan Rapp: It was the perfect storm of Simon being at his peak and his best and really mentoring a lot of us, and in exchange for the mentorship that he and Joel offered was we were there as support staff for his goal, and his mentorship provided support for our goals. It came down to finding a group of individuals, of finding goals to focus on, that overlapped enough for a good training environment but didn’t overlap too much that Simon felt he had to race for a gold medal every single day.
On Whitfield’s silver medal being the squad’s medal
Whitfield: Jordan Rapp cried his eyes out when I won a silver, and everybody on our whole squad did. We all earned it together. I saw them all later and I was like, “This is our medal. I didn’t win this medal—we won this medal. It’s the squad.” I believed it.
Jenkins (who finished in dead last after serving as Whitfield’s domestique): I was going into the last lap and Simon was finishing, and there was a team mechanic on the corner. I asked, “What place did he come in?” And he held up No. 2. That whole last lap, I was so ecstatic. What we were training for for so long, that one goal of him getting a medal, it was so—it just made everything worthwhile.
On “The Relentless Pursuit Of …”
Kyle Jones (a fellow Canadian national team member who has trained with Whitfield since 2004): Simon changed the name of his blog recently to “The Relentless Pursuit Of.” I think that summarizes him as an athlete and how he approaches the sport and always has approached the sport. There’s that saying “no stone unturned.” He embodies that. I’ve seen him with the coaches and our high-performance directors over the years. He’s always asking, “What can we do better?” I’ve seen him kind of struggle when he’s forced to interact with people who don’t have the same commitment—with people who don’t have that same commitment to excellence. That relentless attitude, I think sometimes it overwhelms people. He’ll do anything to win, and he’s always searching for more ways. And it wears on some people. But he’s found a way to surround himself with people who share that same commitment. People who don’t, over time, disappear.
Rapp: I got to see him every single day, and for me the takeaway was he never bagged a session. He never sort of phoned it in. It’s not to say he didn’t have bad workouts. Everyone has bad workouts, and there were the demands of life, of having a kid, and that’s when people would have fights—everyone was tired. If you looked at, over a year, or years, the commitment that he demonstrated, it’s not all that surprising that he won another medal.
Whitfield: That’s what I admire in [Chris “Macca”] McCormack. McCormack just doesn’t give a fuck what people think about him. He’s about “the pursuit of.” And it’s not a popularity contest to him. He just is like, “This is how I feel. This is who I am. If you don’t like it, move aside.” And for me it’s sort of the same thing.
Whitfield: I understood outcome and process pretty early on. Like when I was a kid I understood it. My parents reinforced it without me even really knowing it. I was never asked if I won. I was always asked, did I give a great effort? And that really paid off because it taught me that everything was about the process and about the preparation I put in.
On Whitfield’s reputation as the absent-minded triathlete
Jones: Simon is a bit of a scatterbrain. He’s the guy—I shouldn’t say this, being as I’ve lost my passport recently—but he’ll put his passport through the wash three times. I don’t know if he can get another passport now. He’s under high security from the Canadian government. I’m the younger one by 10 years, but I guess I have better organizational skills. I kind of keep us on track while we’re traveling so we don’t miss any flights. Simon’s got an ADD personality of always moving on to the next thing. I try to keep him focused and on track.
The London 2012 Olympics
*Editor’s note: This article was originally published before the London 2012 Olympics.
On Whitfield’s mental preparation for the Games
Whitfield: I’ve probably thought about Brownlee or [reigning ITU world champion Javier] Gomez or [reigning Olympic champion Jan] Frodeno every day I’ve been here [in Maui] in some form or another. Whether it’s been on a climb, or sitting before my run, or at the pool when we’re lining up for the next 50, I think about Brownlee, Gomez and Frodeno. I think about them every day in every workout—in everything.
On not wanting to be written off
Whitfield: [Olympic silver and bronze medalist] Bevan [Docherty] and I are in very similar situations, where people want to write us off and we don’t want to write ourselves off yet. We’ll see who’s right. I don’t know. He’s in the same situation I am. He doesn’t want to be done yet, and people are telling him his time is up and he’s got his two medals and it’s time to go home. And Bevan wants to punch them in the mouth—and same with me. I want to punch them in the mouth. But maybe they’ll get the last laugh.
Bevan Docherty (who, along with only Whitfield, has two Olympic triathlon medals, which he achieved with silver in Athens and bronze in Beijing): Both Simon and I are veterans, and we both like to believe our past results have proven ourselves. And when someone tries to tell us different and doesn’t have results to back it up, it frustrates us. … Going into the last Olympic campaign, a lot of people had written us off, but we’ve shown that age isn’t a factor. We’re still driven and achieving our results.
Courtney Atkinson (a fellow ITU athlete, from Australia, and a good friend to Whitfield): Simon has this uncanny ability to go away in the off-season, work on his weaknesses, build on his strengths and come back another year older and another year better.
Filliol: Simon is an incredible athlete. He’s intelligent and able to make great decisions and race well. I wouldn’t count him out at all for London. … I don’t think you can discount an athlete like Simon and the abilities he has. Although I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I think he’d be better off if I were still there. If he’s anywhere near [the leaders at] the finish, he’s a dangerous guy.
On intensity in training
Whitfield: I’m training very differently this year than I ever have trained. … It’s less intensity and more general mileage. I always used to train at an incredibly high level of intensity with not a lot of volume. It was intensity, intensity, intensity. Every single day. Except for Mondays, basically. I didn’t do a lot of long rides. I didn’t do a lot of long runs. It was just intensity, intensity, intensity. Last year I was doing, at one point, five hard runs a week. Some of them were just 10 minutes off the bike, and others were, you know, 6 x 1 mile, or 7 x 1 mile, whatever it was. But I’m not doing that anymore. We’re just doing long—we’re doing a lot of like zone 3, zone 2 training. We’ll see. It’s working so far.
On Whitfield’s distrust of exercise physiologists
Whitfield: It seems to me they’re so trapped in the acquisition of grants, and there’s so much more to it. If you had the sole attention of an exercise physiologist who worked with the coaches closely, who built a trusting relationship with them and used practical application of whatever tools they had, that would be one thing. But that’s not the way it is. The exercise physiologists always have the fancy equipment and they always have great ideas—theoretical ideas—and they’re always telling the coaches how it is. They’re educating them and yet they get to a race and they’re saying, “Oh, I didn’t realize that happened. Oh, I didn’t know you had to do that. Oh, I didn’t realize that this happened.” And so it’s a huge learning process for them. But I can’t afford for the exercise physiologist to be guinea pigging me. I can’t be his experiment, you know, where he finds out, “Oh, those first five things I tried with you are wrong. Sorry about those three years.” I don’t have three years anymore.
On altitude training
Whitfield: I’ve done altitude before. We did it before Beijing, but we did it in the winter. And we didn’t know what we were doing. And we didn’t even pretend we knew what we were doing. So we just went to altitude and just trained hard. Because we were like, well, we don’t know what we’re doing but altitude is the hardest stimulus, so we’ll just use the hardest stimulus. But we’re not going to pretend we know what we’re doing. … Now we have access to a very, very smart and very, very accomplished altitude protocol. And a consultant. And so that’s our weapon. That’s the card we’re going to play, and we’ll see how it goes. We are absolutely either going to hit a home run or go down swinging.
Whitfield: You can’t just simply lie on your back. You have to keep some intensity, but you have to figure out what that balance is. … So, for tapering, keep some intensity and stick to your routine—there’s some simple tricks. I mean, like I see guys over-hydrate, which is always funny. Like you get to the race and they’ve got the 2L water bottle with them and they just flush everything out of their system.
Whitfield: One of the best things Joel ever did was he taught us not to search for confidence before races. Joel had great advice before the races. You did all this training and then six weeks out you weren’t allowed to do things that were searching for confidence. We did quite a few workouts where we didn’t know how fast we climbed that climb or how fast we did that rep. We weren’t allowed to wear watches on certain reps because we weren’t going to search for confidence. We were just going to run.
Whitfield: I subsist on a ton of quality bacon and quality fats. You wouldn’t believe how much omega oil fish oil and Udo’s flax oil and NutraSea omega oil—you wouldn’t believe how much coconut oil—we use at home and how much bacon I eat. You wouldn’t believe how much avocado my kids eat and I eat. So it’s a high-fat, high-protein, limited carbohydrate diet—a quality carbohydrate diet.
On his favorite workouts
Whitfield: My favorite swim workout is open water. I think we get the most out of that. On Thetis Lake in Victoria, there’s the big island loop—it’s 1,400 meters. We used to think it was 1,500 until we measured it properly. I like hard open-water sets with a group, properly, with a group. Not alone. Quality swimming. I believe in just quality swimming. None of this floating around—slow precise strokes that are actually really bad strokes ’cause you’re doing them slowly. … With cycling I like anything competitive, like group rides, and attacks and big, long, hard climbs—just rides with the boys. That’s what I like. I hate going out for easy spins. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t really like long, easy rides, but I do them because I have to. My swim-bike theory would be summarized as “go hard often.”
On the most useful gadgets
Whitfield: The most useful is the power meter. I have a LeMond Revolution Trainer at home. It’s so consistent. It’s like riding on the road. I bought it because it’s just the best trainer. I use the Quarq Power Meter. … There’s too much intensity involved in our training to be just out riding, so using the power meter to know I’m doing this in the right zone as prescribed for me—that’s quite useful.
On the most useless piece of equipment
Whitfield: The heart rate monitor would have to be up there. It’s not to say it’s not useful, but it sure can be deceptive if you’re not using it in the right context. … Your heart rate is going to change as you’re dehydrated, as you’re tapered, as the day prescribes, as the amount of coffee you had. This is the stuff I hate. I hate measurement data mining—measurement for the sake of measurement.
On retiring and Whitfield’s legacy to the sport
Whitfield: This is a selfish answer, but [parenting] is gonna give me the ability to move on. Without kids, I wouldn’t have been able to move on. … [Parenting] is going to make it much easier to move on. In fact, it will just be time. Instead of being like 45 and limping and being told it’s time to pack it in, I’ll be able to just pack it in. I could pack it in today because—I couldn’t afford to pack it in today, but—I could pack it in today, and I’d be happy. And I would have another challenge and another thing that would fulfill me.
Jones: He said he was going to retire after 2004 and move to his cabin on Salt Spring Island. He said he would retire after 2008, but until he actually does retire—I’ll believe it when I see it.
Sprigings: I remember when he said he was retiring after Beijing. I think this will be his last Olympics, but he’s not done with sport. You know he’ll be around the triathlon scene—I’m not really sure in what sense—but you’ll still hear from him. Once in a while he talks about doing some longer stuff, but I’m honestly not sure what will actually manifest. It’s hard to imagine him without it. He loves it. I have never met anyone who loves their job as much as Simon.
Alexander: If Simon had decided to go down the path of Ironman instead of the Olympics, I am sure he would be a multiple winner in Kona. I think he is just that talented, has a great work ethic and knows how to plan and prepare for any style of race. He is a very versatile athlete. I have seen him win big non-drafting races like Life Time Fitness. Like most great athletes, Simon can turn his hand to any style of racing. He is very balanced across all three disciplines of our sport. He is a front-pack swimmer in his sleep, a great time trialist on the bike and a superb runner.
It is not a surprise to me that he has a lot of respect for the race in Hawaii—that’s the way Simon is. He should have a crack at it, though. In my opinion, he has the talent to get himself on the podium the first time out there. I would love to help him prepare for it!
Filliol: For Simon to be at or near the top for so long—I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with an athlete like that. He’s unique.
Alexander: I think Simon’s legacy in triathlon will be as one of the greatest male triathletes in our sport’s history. His name will be mentioned alongside the likes of Mark Allen and Simon Lessing. He will always be remembered for being triathlon’s first male Olympic champion, but he has also won so much more. His legacy to us personally will be as a happy guy who loves to have fun, and as a good friend.